Chicago. -- Bill Clinton, like Ronald Reagan, exercised a line-item veto while he was governor. And Mr. Clinton, like Mr. Reagan, wants to continue doing that in the presidency. Calling for the veto is a useful political symbol of opposition to congressional spending, though it is doubtful that any real economies would be effected. The record of states with the veto is not measurably more frugal than that of states without it.
The argument that what is good enough for the states should be good enough for the federal government does not bear careful investigation. In some states, the veto is actually a sign of gubernatorial weakness, not power.
Mr. Clinton's Arkansas is a good example of this. The 19th-century constitution of Arkansas, framed when the South was in reaction to strong (''carpetbagger'') governments during Reconstruction, deliberately made the governor's office weak. The executive power is shared among several constitutional officers. The governor cannot raise taxes without three-quarters of both houses.
Why, then, is the governor allowed a veto on legislative funding measures? The whole system is meant to be weak. The legislature has, normally, sessions of only two months. Since the governor cannot call the legislature back into session to consider each new economic development, he is given a certain discretion during the large part of the year when legislators are out of town.
This is no more than the discretion given to committees that sat when Colonial legislatures were disbanded. Many states began with short legislative sessions, and some still have them, especially in the West. The line-item veto makes sense in that context, especially since states with short legislative sessions are often the ones with minimal budgets in any case.
The federal budget, however, is not only different in scale but reflects the radically different relations between parts of our federal government. Among other things, the Constitution gives Congress entire control of the federal purse. Congress can no more give that power away, without an amendment, than it can give away the power to make war (though it has allowed that to be eroded).
Giving the president unconstitutional powers is dangerous. He controls much more than any governor -- from the nuclear arsenal down to the disposal of all state militias when they are federalized. How could a line-item veto affect these major power issues? Once the president is made a party to the disposal of funds, he will bargain as all legislators do -- asking that Senator A support him if he does not want to see his favorite project killed by a veto.
Even congressional power over the funding of war activities -- one congressional prerogative still carefully preserved -- might be jeopardized. Key legislators could be kept from voting to cut off war funds by the leverage the president had assumed over funding matters vital to them.
The line-item veto is a cheap and easy thing to talk about during the campaign season. It should be left there, for future symbolic use. As anything but a gesture, it is dangerous.
Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.